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Chinese security forces were reportedly surrounding three monasteries outside Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, on Thursday after hundreds of monks took to the streets this week in what are believed to be the largest Tibetan protests against Chinese rule in two decades.

The turmoil in Lhasa occurred at a politically delicate time for China, which is facing increasing criticism over its human rights record as it prepares to be host to the Olympic Games in August and is seeking to appear harmonious to the outside world.

Beijing has kept a tight lid on dissent before the Games. But people with grievances against the governing Communist Party have tried to promote their causes when top officials may be wary of cracking down using force.

Qin Gang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, confirmed Thursday that protests had erupted in Lhasa, but declined to provide details. He described the situation as stable.

The defiance reported this week in Lhasa is unusual. Security there is heavy, and the penalty for protesting is harsh. News of the protests has been censored in the Chinese news media, and Beijing does not allow foreign journalists to travel to Lhasa without permission. But accounts from Tibetan advocacy groups, from the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and from tourists’ postings on the Internet suggest that protests emerged from three of the most famous monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism.

Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University who has communicated with Tibetan exiles, said the initial incident occurred Monday afternoon when about 400 monks left Drepung Loseling Monastery intending to march five miles west to the city center. Police officers stopped the march at the halfway point and arrested 50 or 60 monks.

But Barnett said the remaining monks held the equivalent of a sit-down strike and were joined by an additional 100 monks from Drepung.

The monks “were demanding specific changes on religious restrictions in the monastery,” said Barnett. He said monks want the authorities to ease rules on “patriotic education” in which monks are required to study government propaganda and write denunciations of the Dalai Lama.

On Tuesday morning, the Drepung monks apparently agreed to return to the monastery.

But another protest was under way in the heart of the city, outside the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred temple in Tibet. About a dozen monks from the Sera monastery staged a pro-independence protest, waving a Tibetan flag in front of onlookers in the crowded square outside the temple. Police officers arrested the monks. Foreign tourists posted video on the Internet of officers shooing away people.

The arrests sparked another protest on Tuesday. Witnesses told Radio Free Asia that 500 or 600 monks poured out of the Sera Monastery, about two miles north of the Jokhang Temple. They shouted slogans and demanded the release of their fellow monks.

Witnesses said that police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

A protest was reported Wednesday at Ganden Monastery, about 35 miles east of Lhasa.